Dombrowski style more than a tiger
Are Dave Dombrowski’s Red Sox a sequel to his Detroit Tigers team?
Tigers reliever Alex Wilson was drafted when Theo Epstein still ran the Red Sox. He came to the big leagues for the first time in 2013, under Ben Cherington, and in 2015 he moved on to the Tigers — the final year they were Dombrowski’s Tigers.
Wilson is still in Detroit now, where Al Avila, Dombrowski’s former right-hand man, runs the show.
Let’s compare and contrast.
“With Boston, you always had a giant farm system. There were always guys,” said Wilson, a Sox second-round draft pick in 2009. “I mean, I was one of the guys. Trying to fight my way through to the top. But when you got to the top there was always veteran presence. So only a couple guys from that farm system circled through.
“When or if they did, they usually became a guy. It wasn’t so much that (the Red Sox) always used their farm system, it was the guys that got used were true — like true blue big leaguers. I fought my way up to the big leagues with them and I was up and down (between the majors and minors) for two years, and I think it was like 12 or 13 times.
“It’s kind of hard to stick. And then switching gears, I get traded (to Detroit). Well, they’re in a win-now atmosphere with the way Dombrowski had set up the team here. He had traded a lot of the farm system away so when I got here. Well, I didn’t make the club out of spring. First chance, I got the call and I was able to stick because well, there’s not, there’s a veteran presence, but there’s not a whole farm team behind you. That they can just switch you out with.
“I think Dombrowski’s a win-now guy. Where before him with the Red Sox it was about building.”
Wilson wasn’t speaking critically of Dombrowski, merely relaying the state of the organizations he was a part of, as he saw it.
In the most basic sense, Wilson is correct: Dombrowski acted as a win-now general manager and that is his reputation. The scene Wilson described also underscores a potentially scary outcome for Dombrowski’s time with the Red Sox with whom he serves as president of baseball operations.
That lush farm system that Wilson was a part of, has already been bulldozed to a degree. Now to see what further deforestation follows, if any.
With the Tigers, Dombrowski was working for an owner, the late Mike Illitch, who had a George Steinbrenner-like drive for a title this century.
Is Dombrowski, in his second full year in the Hub, following the same path he did in Detroit, one that might leave a farm system barren enough that, for better or worse, every Alex Wilson gets a shot?
“Not at all. It’s a lot different,” Dombrowski said. “We traded young players (in Boston). But we also have some good young players, not only with our big league club but in our minor league system. At some point you have to quit trading young guys. We probably — I can’t say we’re not going to trade any more, but we’ve got a nice foundation of a combination of big league players. So I think that we have the foundation to be good for a long time.”
The building of trust
The first question is whether you believe Dombrowski and owners John Henry and Tom Werner when they say they’re in it for the long haul. It’s easy to speculate that Henry and Werner wanted one last hurrah, that they brought on Dombrowski for that reason and his job is to seal a final ring and that’s that. Then they can go sell the team.
They say otherwise, that they want to stick around.
So if you accept ownership’s word and believe that there is a long-term vision in place — and there’s reason to believe that Dombrowski was working under special circumstances in Detroit — then the second question becomes whether Dombrowski is best equipped to position the Sox for the long term.
With the Tigers in 2014, Dombrowski became one of the first general managers to hire a field manager without actual managing experience, Brad Ausmus, a hiring practice that turned into a minor trend with Mike Matheny heading the Cardinals, and A.J. Hinch the Astros. That’s suggestive of a progressive mindset.
Dombrowski also, years ago in Detroit, had to turn a dilapidated team around.
“As a player, I was here just before Dave got hired,” Ausmus said, “Then I got traded away and then Dave within a couple years or so was in charge of the organization. And I was there pre-Dave Dombrowksi and I was there with Dave Dombrowski. You know, between Dave and Mr. Illitch, they changed baseball in the city of Detroit. They brought the pride back, they brought the winning back and I’ll throw (former manager) Jim Leyland in there too because he was part of it.”
Asked how he did it, how Dombrowski operates, Ausmus first noted his former boss’ knowledge. The second item he mentioned is probably most important of all for the Red Sox.
“It’s the ability to hire people that can help him accomplish that goal of winning,” Ausmus said.
In a game in which executives don’t always fit this description, Dombrowski is a people person. He’s got the neighborly look with a Midwestern disposition free of swear words — publicly, anyway — and he’s reputed to treat his employees very well.
But he is not the most savvy when it comes to analytics. There’s no way to have a discussion of the future and not touch on data and innovation, and Dombrowski’s never going to match up here to others in the game.
Avila, Dombrowski’s successor in Detroit, was asked what’s changed since Dombrowski left (with no suggestion as to a particular area in the question).
“I would say that we have increased our analytics,” Avila said. “We didn’t really have a department. We have an analytics department now. We have a software system that’s brand new. We’ve got . . . five people in a department. So that’s, I guess, that’s one major change. Other than that really, we pretty much prepare the same way.”
Dombrowski has said more than once that the lack of analytics in Detroit in his time there was because of finances.
Asked how, in an organization that had so much to spend on payroll, a little extra couldn’t be carved out, Dombrowski said he got what he needed.
“We had an analyst and a half,” Dombrowski said. “We had a couple guys that did that for us. We got what we needed at that point. But then to be much larger, no. Because we were spending so much money on payroll. Now, I can’t tell you what’s happened since. . . . ’Cause I’m not there but at the time when I was there, that was it.”
It doesn’t really matter. Dombrowski may not take the most scientific approach to decision-making. Might that hurt him on the margins? Maybe. Big market teams can afford a little dent on the margins.
What’s important is Dombrowski believes in delegation. He’s letting the front office people who do know how to best handle analytics handle them.
“I learned a long time ago if you’re going to be successful in your job you need to surround yourself with good people, and delegate to them,” Dombrowski said. “If someone’s good, you let ’em do their thing and give you the information that you need.”
Just as with analytics, this is an area executives can pay lip service to. But Dombrowski does seem to let his people do their work.
The boss remains primarily focused on the major league roster. But he also hasn’t, to his credit, dismantled the front office. Mike Hazen and Amiel Sawdaye left for better opportunities in Arizona, which created a bad look, but the situation was understandable, and turnover is inevitable in baseball.
Dombrowski brought in Frank Wren as an advisor. Dombrowski changed the way some information passes through the organization — a lot more direct calls with scouts, for example — but he doesn’t seem to be ignoring the blueprint that was in place.
“I don’t think there’s a change in culture,” Dombrowski said.
Not yet on a large scale, any way. This year, the next few years and the use of the farm system moving forward will tell us more.
This doesn’t seem like Detroit Part 2. Red Sox fans should hope it stays that way.